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Given 3 Weeks to Move : Clock Ticking for Back-Porch Food Bank

April 05, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — For two years, city officials have looked the other way as Dorothea Bradley has violated zoning laws by operating an emergency food program from the back porch of her two-story frame house on a narrow street in Northwest Pasadena.

City officials say they recognize Bradley's uncompromising efforts to feed Pasadena's poor and handicapped and thus have disregarded her violations of the municipal code prohibiting the storage and distribution of food in residential areas.

Others say city officials have simply recognized the political fallout that would come from closing a program for the hungry.

Yet whatever the previous motives, those same officials are now losing patience. Community block-grant administrators have given Bradley three weeks to find a new location that complies with local zoning law or she will lose the federal money that sustains her program.

And Pasadena zoning officials, who threatened Bradley with legal action two years ago, say they will move to shut down the operation if she has not relocated by the deadline.

"We really appreciate Dorothea's program, but we can no longer go against local zoning law," said Pam Botts, who monitors block-grant funds for the city. "She needs to find a facility by late April or we can't fund her program for next year."

"We've bent over backwards allowing her to go on," said Joe Russ, supervisor of zoning code enforcement. "Dorothea has to understand that the clock is ticking."

Bradley, 39, whose program operates on the simple premise that the needy, if properly organized, can help feed themselves, says she is frantically searching for a commercial building to rent but has had no luck.

"I've talked to 17 real estate agents. I've talked to churches," said Bradley, who is unemployed and receives disability benefits because of an arthritic spine.

"We need a building that has between 3,500 and 10,000 square feet. It's been so hard to find because it has to be accessible to the handicapped and should have a dock so trucks can deliver. And we'd like to be in a decent enough location so that no one will be afraid to come."

For the 50 or so poor and handicapped people who line up outside Bradley's Earlham Street house each Wednesday for boxes of fresh produce, bread and meat, the emergency food program is a way to stretch disability and welfare checks that invariably run out before the end of each month.

Its demise would be another blow to a section of the city already plagued by poverty, broken families and crime.

"I come here because I'm needy. My husband was laid off more than a year ago and we have two children," said Susan Wiseman, 23, who waited in line for a large box overflowing with turnips, carrots, cabbage, apples, pears, yogurt and wheat bread.

Wiseman and the others are encouraged to donate a few dollars--Bradley's way of helping them build self-worth and making them feel a part of the program. On a typical week, she takes in $30 to $40 that helps defray transportation costs.

"I have no money to spare this week but last week I gave Dorothea a dollar to help out," Wiseman said. "It made me feel real good."

The program has come to mean something more for people such as Edward Jones, 35, who has slept on the streets and in vacant cars and homes since he drifted from his native North Carolina to Southern California 10 years ago.

Bradley found Jones last summer rummaging through garbage cans in back alleys near her home. "I asked him what he was doing with his head in the garbage?" Bradley recalled. "He said he was collecting cans to feed himself."

Jones was invited to Bradley's home for a meal and a pep talk. Soon, he found himself one of Bradley's reclamation projects, one of a dozen hard-luck people who have come under the spell of this large, ebullient woman who speaks seven languages and whose high-pitched voice spills forth with constant unabashed enthusiasm.

Volunteers Kept Busy

Today, Jones and a tight-knit group of volunteers help Bradley gather and box the food in her backyard before each week's giveaway. They accompany her in a passenger van to places up and down the state--to onion fields in Saugus and vegetable farms in Fresno--to pick up fresh produce donated or sold at low prices by farmers who have been coaxed and flattered by Bradley.

Even Jones, after volunteering his time, donates a few dollars for the boxes of food he takes with him.

"Some folks abuse programs like this," he said. "I want her to know that I'm serious about what I'm doing here."

The poor and disabled helping feed the poor and disabled is a distinguishing feature of Bradley's program. Her emphasis on self-help is a major reason the city's block grant agency has steadily increased the program's funding, from $33,000 in 1984 and 1985 to $40,000 last year and a proposed $55,000 this year. Much of the proposed increase in this year's budget is to help Bradley cover the costs of renting a building.

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